Edith Helen Sichel.

The life and letters of Alfred Ainger online

. (page 18 of 32)
Online LibraryEdith Helen SichelThe life and letters of Alfred Ainger → online text (page 18 of 32)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

than before. Their effect is that of a sunny day after rain.'

There are two prominent characteristics in these and all
his sayings about literature. The one is moderation, a quality
doubtless implied by the word ' taste,' but Ainger's was a fine
natural moderation, neither courting, nor shrinking from the
obvious, which reminds us of the prose of a Cowper, or a Gray,
rather than of any newer author.

To modern exaggerations he was an inveterate foe.


* Readers,' he says, 'of the literary reviews or journals of to-day
cannot fail to be struck with a curious lack of moderation, or
perhaps proportion, in the criticism of new books, especially
works of imagination. . . . There is a homely proverb which
should remind us that the standard is everything — the proverb
which affirms that among the blind the one-eyed man is king. . . .
It is the reverse of the precedent set up by Aesop's shepherd
boy. He cried "Wolf! wolf!" until no one believed him. The
critic I have in my eye calls out " Lamb ! Lamb ! " (or whatever is
the proper antithesis to wolf) until he is met with a similar in-
credulity. ... If the lowest praise you administer is " superla-
tive," what praise is left for the giants of the art ? If " supreme "
and " consummate " and " exquisite " and the like, are sprinkled
over the dish as fi*om a pepper-castei*, what is left to apply to
Shakespeare and Spenser, Milton, Gray, Keats, Shelley.' ^

* ' Poetae Mediocres,' Macmillan's Magazine.


This spiritual temperance of Ainger's often led him, in
contempt of facile effectiveness, into some formality of expres-
sion, while his moral fastidiousness might to some have seemed
almost excessive. And this brings us to the other essential
quality of his judgment — his power of moral criticism, more
prominent than aesthetic criticism in what he wrote or said.
It was always the moral side of art and life that first attracted
him, and it was the profound moral outlook which drew him
most powerfully to the poet who for him summed up both
life and art. ' It is owing to that surefooted step of his in
things moral, that he never slips, even on that most dangerous
ground ; that he leaves us in the end satisfied ' — he once said
in a lecture on Shakespeare. Not that he thought art a
moral matter, but be believed that it set up what Tolstoi calls
' a moral relation between itself and the public,' that it
embodied a view of human existence often unconsciously for-
mulated, and that, however impersonal, of its very nature it
must reveal personality. He did not neglect beauty — none
was keener than he to see and value it ; but he regarded moral
health as essential to it — not as the flower itself, but as the
sun and light which fed the flower. ' Without profound
ethical beauty there can be no permanent or enduring popu-
larity for the serious drama.' So he wrote ; and his lectures,
his writing, his talk, bore witness to this belief, and to his
consequent dislike of any theory of art for art's sake.

Such a strong bias was bound to have strong drawbacks. If
it made his strength, it also made his limitations. His choice
of friends in literature, as of those in real life, was founded upon
personal likes or dislikes, which he did not seem able to help
in the one case any more than in the other ; and yet if we look
more closely we shall find these feelings grounded upon a
moral ground — we had almost said a moral prejudice — for such
his literary sympathies and antipathies sometimes became.
' The hearty manner in whicli he ' (Patmore) ' " goes for" Percy
Bysshe also struck me as being, even if wrong, yet wrong in
the right direction. For the hideous Shelley-worship of the
present day is one of the worst symptoms of wrong-headedness
and wrong heartedness.' Thus he writes to Mr. Dykes Campbell,


and he seems to forget — deliberately — that Shelley worship is
ofteiier founded on a love of beauty than on ethical instinct.
Still more strongly does the same kind of injustice, and almost
a dogmatist's injustice, appear in a letter that he wrote to
Miss Flora Stevenson, after a lecture he had given in Edin-
burgh on George Eliot. His correspondent — who lived there
— had been present, and wrote making some objection.

' Mv DEAR Friend ' (he replied), — ' Thanks for your note, and for
your kind words about my lecture. Do you knoWj I am quite
grateful that yours is the only demur that has yet reached me, on
the subject of my estimate of George Eliot, for I positively feared
that the whole audience would rise to hoot me, when I said what
1 did — so much is George Eliot the idol of the cultured classes
in this city. I think I did not once apply the epithet "cynical"
to her. I would not have done so, because she was too wise a
woman to be cynical ; but I do think that her way of regarding
mankind generally — de haul en bus — is at the root of her failure as
a humorist — and I wish you would re-read (say the Scenes of
Clerical Life) by the light of this criticism, and tell me whether
you do not better understand what I mean. She patronises
everything in the world — even Christianity. The very fact that,
holding the opinions we know her to have entertained towards
Christian theology, she should have dealt with Christianity as she
does in Janet's- Repentance and Adam Bede, is the most perfect
instance of this patronising. That she should make moral and
pathetic capital out of an Institution she held to be based
upon the idlest of fables, is to me, and always was, a revolting

' One or two people after the lecture, in the tea-room, thanked
me for "what I had said about George Eliot," so I had one or
two sympathisers. . . .'

He appears to forget, almost wilfully, that George Eliot
wrote as an artist, not as a preacher, and the shrewdness of
his first remarks about her attitude to humanity stands out
in enigmatic contrast with the set prejudice of the last.

Whatever the effect of Ainger's dislikes, his likes nearly
always made delicate and reliable criticism. But occasionally,
even here, his moral sense got in the way of his literary
acumen and drew from him surprising statements. No one


has perhaps written in a strain more charming or more just of
Tennyson, yet when he compared him with great poets, whom
he liked less, or tried to prove to himself certain facts which
he wished to believe, his praise was by no means infallible.

'Tennyson's diction' (so he writes after the poet's death)
' haunts us, and gladdens and purifies while it haunts. And this
it is which makes him, with whatever other immense diffei-ences, so
Shakespearian. His verse is so human, while also so bewitching
and so haunting. As an artist in verbal expression he ranks with
Shelley and Keats. Yet while for all the best verse of those
poets our admiration never wanes, that admiration rarely warms
into affection, and its appeal is therefore to the lesser number.
It bewitches, but only now and again it moves. Keats's Aulinnn —

" Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness " —

is as Tennysonian perhaps as anything that a poet of marked
individuality ever produced, and it moves us within its limits, but
not within Tennyson's.'

. . . 'Sufficient now to note,' he continues later, 'that while he
shared the divine Shakespearian sympathy with all classes, from
highest to lowest, and " felt with king and peasant alike," he yet
(like Shakespeare) recognised no virtue either in " classes " or
" masses," save as they were made wise through justice, reverence,
and self-denial. That Shakespeare's own attitude towards the
"mob" was somewhat scornful, that there was a strong vein of
the so-called aristocrat in that Warwickshire farmer's son, has
often been inferred, and perhaps justly, so far as one may pene-
ti'ate his dramatic disguise and read the real man. It was not in
this, if it existed, that Tennyson followed him ; but rather in the
quality just before mentioned, of insight into the true source of
national greatness, freedom based upon moral discipline.'

Do Tennyson's gi-eatest lovers say that he was more of a
democrat than Shakespeare, as here represented ? As to
Keats, Tennyson himself once said, ' If he had lived, he would
have been the greatest of all.'

Yet no one, when not comparing one man with another,
could write better and more justly about poets and poetry,
or treat them with more steadfast enthusiasm. And his sug-
gestions as to what makes enduring art, a theme on which he


liked to dwell, make no unfitting conclusion to his pro-
nouncements upon Tennyson.

' In poetiy/ he says, * Horace has told us — and the cultivated
sense of mankind has ratified his words — mediocrity is not admis-
sible ... for who shall estimate the enormous influence of its
great poets in the education of a people, both as their teachers
and as the imparters of intense and lofty and enduring delight ?
And if so, it must surely be of primary importance, in the interest
of that education, that we keep our sense pure and unsophisticated,
as to what is poetry and what is not. . . . The artificer who can
make a jam-pot admirably, and a Grecian urn but poorly, will
live, if he live at all, by the excellence of his jam-pots, and not by
his urns. Poets must survive by their successes, not by their
failures. It is excellence in its own kind that is a joy for ever,
even when that kind is short o^ the highest. This, it would
seem, is one of the fallacies that possess those who comj)lain that
contemporary verse is not appreciated. They plead with truth
of some new volume of verse that it is noble in aim, earnest in
spirit, and in metrical skill and a certain verbal ingenuity often
admirable. Yet the volume in question is read once, in response
to some enthusiastic review, but it somehow fails to delight; it is
not quoted, or remembered, or re-read ; treasured in that limited
book-shelf that hangs, like that of Chaucer's scholar, at one's
''bed-head." . . . How is this, indeed.'' What constitutes the
vitality of verse .'' What is the essential reason why some verse
lives and some dies ? It is an answer, but no explanation, to
reply that genius is inscrutable, intangible, coming like the wind
we know not whence, and having issues we know not whither.
. . . There may be tests for a thing, though the thing itself
evades analysis. ... It was not of poetry that Hamlet was
thinking when he said in his nervous irritability that there is
" nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so." We
have the great poets in our hands, or around us ; and in seeking
to know why they have taken a rank denied others, I think our
chief test is the very fact of their survival — that is, that time has
not withered them, nor custom staled them. Whatever the

• J.

quality that has made them live^is independent of time. Spenser
is as delightful to us as to his contemporaries. Pope, though
dealing habitually with people, incidents, quarrels, gossip of his
generation, has lost for us no jot of his fascination. We cannot,
of course, offer this precise quality as a test for the poetry of our


own day. We shall all be in our graves before a like probationary
period is over. But there is a kindred test which may be applied
by most of us during our lifetime. I used just now Keats's famous
expression about a thing of beauty being a joy for ever. The
line has been so vulgarised that we forget that it contains a very
subtle criticism. " For ever" of course includes the lapse of ages
in the world's history, but there is no reason why it should not
include lapse of time in the individual's. If a thing is really
good, really beautiful, it will travel with us through life, a " life's
star," that never wanes or dwindles ; or it will seem to grow to
us more good, more beautiful, as we ourselves grow in real

And again let us hear him upon the critic of poetry and his

* It is not grotesque mediocrity which seems likely nowadays
to deceive the elect, or even the non-elect. If there is a counter-
feit poetry now in circulation, it is of a wholly different mintage.
Any one can detect and nail to the counter such spurious money
as Macaulay denounced. The later coinages are far better imita-
tions of the genuine thing. Many, indeed, are on the surface of
them very like the real thing ; the face is as bright, sometimes
brighter, than 18-carat gold ; the cutting of the die seems perfect,
the impression skilfully taken, the milling unexceptionable. It
is only when weighed in the hand by some one familiar with the
genuine coin that its weight is felt to be deficient ; only when
struck against some strong, hard surface that its ring is perceived
to be false.

'. . . One would have supposed that at such a period —
when, to adapt the proverb of the wood and the trees, one can
hardly see literature for the books — the critical standard would
rise ; that the critic would show himself more, not less, exacting,
and would be more careful, in the interest of the reader, to
emphasise the distinction between the excellent and the mediocre.
Yet no one can read much of the current periodical criticism
without noting that it is rather the opposite that is happening.
While it is an obvious and undeniable fact that the manufacture
of books, as distinguished from authorship, exists on an enormous
scale, yet apparently the average critic becomes more easy to
please, not less, than of old ; as if he cried in sheer despair to the
makers of books, " Well, if you can't rise to my standard, I must
come down to yours " ; and hardly six months pass without some


prose romance appearing, by some fresh writer, and being
received with such a chorus of welcome and such hecatombs of
praise, as would require some modification if applied to the
masterpieces of Walter Scott — to Old Mortality or The Heart of
Midlothiari. Now, as I have said, no one wishes for a return of
the criticism called slashing, but what I do think the intelligent
reader often sighs for, is some criticism that may be called dis-
criminating ; and if the value of such in literature of whatever
kind is great, it is surely greatest where the literature in question
is poetry.'

He had scant belief in latter-day singers and was not
inclined to treat them over hospitably. And this was not
one of his personal prejudices, but part of his poetic creed
— a part which no one has accounted for better than he

' Is the thing said by the new poet in itself worth saying ' (he
asks) .-' ' Of much of the verse of the present day, this is a safe
test. Much of it is written, apparently, for the sake of exhibit-
ing a technical skill in wordbuilding, or the invention of new and
curious metres. Here the form is everything, and the substance
nothing. ... A minor poet is not necessarily mediocre ; and
there is ample room for the former, and ample reason for us to
value and be thankful for him. I am aware that a flavour of
mediocrity has come to be associated with the word "minor."
There is a story of a lady of fashion, who collected notabilities at
her parties, introducing a bard of this description to a distin-
guished foreigner in these terms : " Herr Muller," she said,
"allow me to introduce to you Mr. Shelley Smith, one of the most
distinguished of our minor poets." The story adds that Mr.
Shelley Smith was not pleased. . . . The best of the "minor"
verse and the best of the "major" dwell side by side, differing
from each other doubtless in glory, but stars for ever, and joys for
ever, in the firmament of beauty with which God has encircled
His world. . . . Such a pi'actice (superlative praise) tends to con-
fuse and spoil that moral sense, which, as well as an intellectual
one, enters (I firmly believe) into our appreciation of the highest.
When a new poet is hailed, within a week of his first appearance,
as a new Shelley, should the epithet prove absurd, you may ask,
" Well, what harm is done, beyond fluttering needlessly the
aesthetic pulse of the readei*, and causing the expenditure of a


few premature half-crowns ? " Well the harm is that treason is
done — not of course against the Dii Majorcs of verse^ who sit
apart, beside their nectar, careless of the critics — but treason
against the poetic instinct and conscience of the general reader,
who is tempted to rub his eyes and exclaim, " Is this first-rate
poetry ? Have I been deceived all my days in regarding the
really gi'eat poets, on whom time has set his seal, as on a wholly
different plane from these ; as really great, enduring, vital, part
and parcel of my life's experience — entering into the very faith,
hope, love, strength, and joy of my intellectual and spiritual
being ?'

Enough has been said and quoted to show Alfred Ainger''s
views about art and literature, his attitude towards them,
from the moral and aesthetic standpoints. We have said
all when we say that he was an interpreter, not an originator,
that although he had so much of the artistic temperament,
he was not completely an artist. His moral sense interfered,
and it too frequently induced him to confound ethics with
art. But the moral sense has its place in criticism — a very
important one — and wherever such a force is needed, there
Ainger's judgment was perfect : simple, sober, yet fervent.

The same strength and the same weakness characterise his
conception of life, and perhaps this is nowhere better exempli-
fied than in his correspondence with INIr. Shorthouse about
the Little Schoolmaster Mark, a book whicli excited Canon
Ainger in a way that was by no means usual with him.
Where he handles religion and its influence in the world, he
always speaks words of wisdom ; but where he handles art and
its whole relation to religious faith, the moralist grows too
strong for the artist. Tiie correspondence began in 1883,
soon after the little book was published.

' Hampstead, November 23rd, 1883.

'Dear Mn. Shorthouse, — I have wished ever since 1 read
your beautiful story of the Lillle Schouhmslcr Mark, to write and
thank you for it. I am afraid you are too well used to this kind
of unsolicited tribute, but 1 liope you will forgive my impertin-
ence. Of course, like the rest of your readers, I have been
interpreting the allegory (if allegory it is) in my own way and


according to my own dim guesses. But the reason perhaps wliy
I have been specially interested in it from the clerical point of
view, is that it seemed to me to support and justify a very
favourite lesson of mine, which I have very often tried to instil
from the Temple pulpit, that " if we try to treat religion as if it
was one of the Fine Arts, we shall inevitably kill it in the
process." I have used this very phrase more than once in the
last few years, and when I came to the tragic end of your story
and found the little schoolmaster (who can be no other than
Religion or the Spirit of Holiness) dying under the world's too
ingenious hands, I seemed to read in it a confirmation of my own
teaching at various times.

' I wonder if I am anywhere near the truth. Possibly — and
most likely^— you had some other pui-pose in mind, of a very
different scope. But I did take the great liberty of referring to
your story in my last Sunday's sermon — and in these terms : —

' " When the Little Schoolmaster Mark is forced to take up his
abode in the clever and polished and wicked world — the world
liked /u?)i for his purity and unworldliness, for the world cannot
choose but admire and revere. It sees what benefit religion
brings, but it will not surrender itself to it — it will not gaze and
gaze, and adore, till it assimilates itself to the Divine Ideal. It
must needs have Religion for its playfellow, and its plaything, a
new instrument for its inventiveness and I'esource.

' " Religion must take its share in the world's Saturnalia. But
in the midst of it, the young child droops and falls— and there is
a cry of Look ! Look ! ihe child is drying / And at once the play
is stopped. And so the story ends.''

' Most true vision of the end of all such endeavours !

' Religion must be above ii.s, and greater than us, if it is to lift
us higher. If we })ut it on our own level or patronise it — or play
with it — it will die. And when it dies, corruption spreads.
Society may linger yet for a while in the after-glow of its memory,
but the end will not be far off.

' This may be — and probably is — quite beside the mark (no pun
intended), but I hope that, if I have interpolated a moral, it is not
one that you would wholly disagree with.

' I am very anxious to learn all the lessons of your wonderful
stoiy. Mrs. Macmillan has put me on the track of some records
of Italian Comedy, which she tells me are illustrative of the latter
part of your fable.

' Pray forgive me this intrusion. But in truth, I have not


been for very long so charmed as by this romance of yours, and I
cannot hold my peace about it, without pain and grief — Yours
faithfully and gratefully, Alfred Ainger.'

' Lansdowne,
' Edgbaston, Nov. 25, 1883.

'Dear Mr. Ainger, — I am very grateful for your letter and
for the expression of the intei'est you take in Little Mark. If
success be ever attained by the writer of what we call fiction, it
must be when men of culture perceive in his stories lessons and
glimpses of truth such as they have discovered in life itself! For
more than this who could wish to hope ?

' With your interpretation I should be the last to quarrel. In
fact, if words mean anything, it is what occurred. But is it all
the truth .'' Can one instance, however typical, exhaust the whole
of truth } May not something be said for the Prince's view of
life .'' May not religion be conceived as a fine art — (life surely is,
or would be,whei'e circumstances allowed); where then can the line
be drawn .'' — for we shall not dispute that religion is a part of
life. Have religionists been so successful as to preclude all idea
that there has been a mistake somewhere ? Has not Fanaticism
used your words, again and again, with baleful effect : " gaze and
gaze, and adore," and are there not words somewhere about ''the
wisdom of the serpent" as well as about " the harmlessness of the
dove " } May it not be a mission — as it is to show what life may
he — to show what religion might be .'' — not as an outcast or alien
from life's feast, but as the honoured and presiding guest. Is it
because of such failures as the Prince's experiment that the
problem is still unsolved }

I am glad to think of any work of real art, that opposite
lessons may be read iitto it, though not perhapsy)o?« it : if it be a
true glimpse of life it must bear different interpretations as life
does. I should not be shocked to find the tale claimed as pessi-
mistic — pessimism must be faced. I should be very glad if my
little tale might serve as a peg for such discussion as would bring
out more of your thoughts. Shall we ever have the pleasure of
hearing them here .-* — With kindest regards from my wife, I am,
yours very sincerely, J. Henry Shorthouse.'

' Lansdowne,
* Edgbaston, December 3, 1883.
' My dear Mr. Ainger, — I have ventured to send you a copy
of the Little Schoolmaster Murk, which I hoi)e you will accept


in token of the pleasure we have always felt in the recollection
of our introduction to you and of thanks for your last letter.
I assure you that this letter has been the cause of much interest-
ing discussion here, and has enabled me to see much clearer the
meaning of my own tale. When I wrote it I had before my mind
chiefly the study of contrast between the spiritual life and the
worldly life, in its most attractive form.

' It is, however, the distinguishing advantage of fiction that the
meaning is not limited to what was in the writer's mind at the
time. I should noiv say that the story is the relation of one of
viany failures to reconcile the artistic ivith the spiritual aspect of life.
This, I think, will not interfere with your interpretation, but will
at the same time allow for extension of meaning.

' The Prince was not equal to the task, but Avho is .'' He had
not only to keep his "Saturnalia" in order, but he was exposed
to an unexpected difficulty — the effect of the Princess Isoline and
disappointment (in her religious life) upon Mark. This he pro-
bably never dreamt of, yet was it not this that really killed Mark .''

Online LibraryEdith Helen SichelThe life and letters of Alfred Ainger → online text (page 18 of 32)